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Video Games

Back 4 Blood is a Strong Co-Op Experience With Bite: Co-Op Review

Dan: I gotta say this is our second co-op review and this time for an actual co-op experience. Now the thing is, our last review was very calming and soothing. This time around, we were blasting away at the undead like our lives depended on it. Before we get into the actual review, I have to say that this is a game I have been counting the moments until release. I absolutely love and cherish my memories of playing Left 4 Dead growing up with my friends. Seeing how high we could push the difficulty every time we ran through the campaigns again was a lot of long nights of expletives at a television. Most of the team from Left 4 Dead went on to make this game, and it shows in the best way.

Gabrielle: I’m actually not a person who frequently plays multiplayer or co-op games. Although I played Left 4 Dead a lot, and I’m always happy to play with friends, I feel much more at home with single-player experiences. But this is the spiritual successor of L4D, so of course, I knew about it and knew I had to try it! It’s zombies, and it’s Halloween. There’s no better time for this.

The End is Nigh

Back 4 Blood is an FPS co-op at its heart, exactly like its predecessor. You go through different linear but well-spaced levels connected by safe rooms with your teammates, killing everything without a heartbeat. That means not only your run-of-the-mill brain-eating zombies but special types of mutated zombies. To help you with the slaughter, there’s a card deck system that will help you and sometimes your whole team to deal with the hordes, adding perks to the one your character already has. All of this is to say, Back 4 Blood is a fast-paced gorefest with many new and unexpected features that we’re dying to get into.

Gameplay

Dan: While this really does feel like a Left 4 Dead spiritual successor, there are enough upgrades to the gameplay and features to make it feel like a real evolution of the survival horror subgenre of games that Left 4 Dead pioneered. The bare basics are that 4 survivors must fight their way through the zombie hordes to a safe room for every level. Each level has unique environments and challenges though that never makes this feel repetitive. You are faced with some very different tasks to complete at each level. One of my favorite challenges included having to open a path in the sewers, which were the most infested area that we had seen so far in the game. It was a spine-tingling challenge as we had our backs to the wall as a group, just fighting to keep them back until we could make our escape. There is also a very new system in the game which involves perk cards. Gab, what did you feel about this?

Gabrielle: A big difference that separates this game from those that follow the same gameplay style and loop is the use of deck cards. I’m normally not big on these as I just consider them a boring addition that slows down the experience, especially in such an energetic game like this. Besides, its influence ends up never being very noticeable. Fortunately, that is not the case here, as it’s an easy system to understand and play with. They act exactly as perks that you can add to your character each level from the deck you build with every session, and their presence is palpable. I like to play as a pseudo-tank, with a heavy rifle or shotgun as a primary weapon and melee for the secondary slot. So every time I could, I used my health-related cards to assure that I could kill as many ridden as possible without worrying too much about that, and it was a completely different experience.

As Dan said, there’s not only a good variety to the levels, but they’re well structured. You’re not going to find yourself going through three levels in a row where you just have to go from A to B killing zombies. There are levels where you have to protect a stronghold while there are waves and waves of enemies coming after you. Sometimes you have to rescue other survivors or deliver a package, and more. It not only avoids repetition but constantly changes up the team’s dynamic as you have to micro-manage to decide who’s better suited for which task.

Co-Op Experience

Dan: I love Co-Op games. My brother and I grew up playing them together since we had one console between us. When the online gaming community started to grow for consoles, good co-op experiences started to go the way of the dinosaur. Now that we are older and live apart, we are always looking for good co-op experiences, so that was an important factor about this review to me. Is it a good Co-Op experience? For me, the answer is 100% yes that this is a perfect CO-OP game.

Honestly, I don’t think I would play a ton of it if I didn’t have someone like my review partner Gab. We spent hours playing together and learning the mechanics of the game, how we act as players and the strengths and weaknesses of the characters we chose. Each playable character is called a “Cleaner” with its own unique perks and play styles. As someone who yearns to play every single game with melee, I have big heart eyes for Holly. After a few runs in the game, I built out a special deck of cards for my melee playstyle, which actually felt like it changed the gameplay a lot. I felt like I was actually playing to my strengths with the cards selected instead of having the feeling that it didn’t change the game one way or another.

It was a great experience being able to balance how I played with Gab as we made our way through the runs. There also is a very specific feeling you get when your teammate needs your help to get them up when they’re overrun. It’s like you’re really going to help your friend. Gab, as someone who mostly plays solo stuff, how did you feel usually teaming up with three other people to take on the Ridden hordes?

Gabrielle: It was honestly a great time. When you’re drowning in wave after wave of ridden surrounding you with no escape route other than your weapon, you get to feel like the survivor you’re playing as and part of a team where you have each other’s backs.

As you mentioned, it’s fun to see how everyone plays off of each other. While you played as Holly and were slicing down crowds of zombies with a machete, I played as Karlee. When I read her perks, I didn’t care much for it. She has a quick inventory, can augment the team’s speed, and detect hazards. I didn’t even pay attention to them until I started to notice just how useful it was. While Dan was doing crowd control, I saw every special kind of ridden coming from a mile away, even through walls, giving me an enormous advantage as I took them out with my rifle from a distance before they could reach any of my teammates. Or, in case they were already too close, I would still be able to tell where they were coming from which kind of special they were, letting Dan know so he could prepare. Not only that, but she also detected any birds or alarm systems that could attract hordes, giving me a better awareness of my surroundings to know how careful should I be going through the levels.

It’s also crazy how good the combat feels, melee and ranged alike. Playing with either a shotgun or a rifle felt near to using the equivalent weapons in Doom Eternal, which has, in my opinion, the best gunplay I ever experienced.

Let’s talk about the Ridden bay bee

Gabrielle: Obviously, the main theme of this game is the ridden. Zombie-type enemies that will try (and maybe succeed) to have your guts as dessert and turn you into one of them.

You have the regular Ridden, long-gone humans who will run to you at top-speed when they so much as hear a step. They are easy to kill, being able to dispatch them with one good shot most of the time. But their strength is in their numbers because where there is one, you can be sure there is a whole horde nearby. If you’re not careful, you will be on the ground serving as dinner for dozens of these guys before you realize it.

Of course, they’re not alone. You will also be dealing with the Special Ridden, which are types of enemies that vary in their abilities to make your game as much of a nightmare as possible. There are 8 of these for now, with three of them having their own divisions. Some of these will seem very familiar to anyone who played Left 4 Dead. For example, you have your Tallboy, Bruiser, or Crusher, a very strong but slow kind of enemy that will easily squash you against the floor if you let them get close. Or you have your Retch, Reeker, and Exploder, disgusting specials that will puke acid on you that will not only harm you but attract other ridden to you in a horde.

But with Back 4 Blood also come a lot of surprises! The Stinger, Stalker, and Hocker are fast and dangerous enemies that can attack you before you notice they’re even there, being able to climb on walls to devour you with different methods. There are also more unique Specials, like the Ogre, a gigantic monster, unlike anything you’ve ever seen, that can kill you with one or two hits and will have to be killed with the entire team’s cooperation. The Breakers act as their more manageable little brothers, creating a big problem for the team but not as uncommon or dangerous as the Ogre. The Sleepers are a type of zombie that will force you to be extremely aware of your surroundings, as they nest in walls prepared to launch against anything that passes near them and pin you down. The Snitcher is a mostly harmless but very annoying type that will alert every other ridden around of your presence but can thankfully be taken down easily without much problem. But by far, my favorite (and the last) of them is the Hag. A disgusting, terrifying, and hard-to-kill monster that runs uncontrollably and grabs you with its long arms to literally insert you in its mouth. Every encounter I had with the Hag was unexpected, and fear-inducing thanks to the great design it has.

As you can see, there are A LOT of obstacles to face in this game. That’s usually a great thing, as you never get tired of seeing and confronting the same enemies over and over. The way they play and challenge the players individually and as a team is great. But it’s true that on some levels, there will be a whole crowd of ridden trying to eat you and five different types of specials coming from all sides, almost guaranteeing a game over.  It’s mostly fine, making a challenge that will satisfy you at the end, but it’s worth noting how it feels a bit unbalanced it feels in specific sequences.

How about you, Dan? What’s your favorite of these, and what did you think about the game utilization of them?

Dan: I honestly didn’t know a single one of their names and gave them my own names. Like hammerfist, money shot, and Shrek. Honestly, I loved the variety of them, but I agree, at times it was super unbalanced to the point of frustration.

Verdict: Worth it for the Co-Op experience?

Gabrielle: Totally. You feel like you’re there, in the middle of the apocalypse with blood basically raining down on you while you try to survive with your friends. It feels like an evolution of everything we saw in Left 4 Dead while designing an identity of its own with the many new monsters it has and features like the card deck. If you like co-op FPS, and especially if you have friends to play with, I’d say this is a must-buy. I feel this is a game that came here to stay as its predecessor once did.

Dan: I played on the Xbox Series S, and the game played spectacularly. There were only a few hiccups here and there. Overall, if you have a friend or are fine playing with new people online, it’s absolutely a must-have. It’s so much fun to play, and the action never ends.

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Video Games

Final Fantasy XIV – The MMO That is so Good, it was Released Twice!

“Pray return to the Waking Sands” – Minfilia, Scions of the Seventh Dawn.

Well met would be adventurers! Today I am here to tell you the story of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, the hit MMORPG from Square Enix that is currently FREE to play through its base game AND its first expansion, all the way through level 60, with NO cap on playtime. If you know, you know.

Before I dive into the nitty gritty details of the game, here is what you can expect from this MMORPG.

  • An open world that feels lived in.
  • An amazing story that places you in the protagonist’s seat.
  • Loveable characters.
  • Unique classes and the ability to try them all with ease on ONE character.

If that list gets your fingers itching to mash some buttons, stick around as I tell you about the new player experience for FFXIV: ARR.

FFXIV is VERY new player-friendly in terms of gameplay. The classes all start with just a small handful of abilities and organically add new buttons to press as you level up and play through the story. You can learn the class as you play, as opposed to having to figure out complex rotations and spell combos all at once. For me, that is a huge win for the game because MMOs are known for being a bit complicated. Now, let us dive a little bit deeper into the class/job systems of FFXIV. When you start the game, you have the option to choose from a handful of Classes, with many more opening up as you play through the game. Upon reaching level 30, these classes evolve into more specific Jobs, which are more powerful versions of each class. Final Fantasy might see some familiar names.

First of all we have our tanks. The job of the tanks is to keep the attention of all of the baddies so that the other classes can focus on taking them down and healing. The first tank is the Gladiator. Gladiators use a Sword and Shield as their weapons of choice and focus on protecting themselves and their party members from damage. At level 30, they evolve into the Paladin job.

The second tank we have from the start is Marauder. They swing a big ol’ ax around and do lots of damage to keep the bad guys focused on them. At level 30, they become Warriors.

Next up, we have our DPS or Damage Per Second classes. Their job is to kill the enemies and bosses as fast as possible. Within this category, we have even more options such as Melee DPS fighting up close and personal, Ranged Physical DPS who attack with physical weapons from afar, and Ranged Magic DPS, who sling spells at the baddies.

Up first for Melee DPS is Lancer. They use a spear and attack using jumping abilities to help close the distance between them and their target. At level 30 they soar into the Dragoon job.

Next, you have the Pugilist. (Forever cursed to be mispronounced by me.) They use their fists to solve their problems, and at level 30, they turn into Monks.

The only option for Ranged Physical DPS is the Archer. They bombard their foes with a bow and arrow, but upon reaching level 30, they become Bards, which not only attacks but also uses musical magic to support their friends.

Ready to pew pew magic at your enemies? Ranged Magic DPS is the job for you. The game opens up with two options for you to choose from.

Starting with the Thaumaturge. They carry a staff and call upon powerful ice and fire magicks to attack their foes, and upon reaching level 30, they turn into the Black Mage job.

Secondly, we have the Arcanist. Using their grimoires as a focus, this class is a bit special. They start off as a ranged DPS class, using the power of summoning magic along with Damage Over Time spells (DOTs) to support their attacks, but upon reaching level 30, they have the choice to turn into either a Summoner, which continues to be a Ranged Magical DPS class or a Scholar which is one of the healer jobs available in the game.

Speaking of healers, the only healer available to you at level 1 will be the Conjurer class. They carry a wand or staff and call upon the magicks of the elements to heal their friends and attack their foes. At level 30, they become White Mages.

This was a very brief overview of all the classes and jobs you can start with, and as mentioned earlier, there are so many options that become available to you as you continue to play the game, the first being at level 10!

While being named “XIV” (Fourteen), you do not need to play any other Final Fantasy game to understand the plot as this game, as with many of the games in the FF series, takes place on its own self-contained universe. Our adventures take place in the world of Hydaelyn, primarily on the continent of Eorzea. Five years before the start of our adventure, some really bad things happened on Eorzea, which ushered the world into the seventh umbral era, also known as the Calamity. All to say, the world is pretty messed up, and it is a very prosperous, albeit dangerous, time to be an adventurer.

Depending on your chosen class (which, again, is changeable throughout the game), you will start in one of three major city-states on Eorzea, all of which are inhabited by the various races of the world at this point. There is the nature-loving Gridania, The desert jewel Ul’Dah, or the island city of Limsa Lominsa (say that 10x fast). As you adventure, you will find many other settlements throughout Hydaelyn, but these three will always be revisited time and time again. Without giving too much away, as you explore, you will become very well acquainted with an organization referred to as the Scions of the Seventh Dawn. This fun group operates outside of the governments of Eorzea, hellbent on making the country a better place for all by stopping the wicked beast tribes from summoning their Primal gods and causing massive destruction. This group grows and shrinks throughout the story of the game and has a very loveable cast of characters that you will grow to love as you venture alongside them.

This game is truly a lot of fun, but you might be wondering why it is called A Realm Reborn and not just Final Fantasy XIV Online. Well, that story is rather long-winded, but the general gist is: The original game really sucked, and the player base did not like it at all. It under delivered on many of its promises but instead of packing it in and calling it a loss, the current director Naoki Yoshida, took it as an opportunity to hear the players’ concerns and start over from ground zero. This event is even referenced in-story and via the 5-year time skip mentioned earlier. The new game was everything the player base wanted and more, and it has been thriving ever since. It is currently competing with that other game that shall not be mentioned for most played MMORPG, and many internet celebrities and streamers famous for their content on that other game have started playing FFXIV as well, creating a boom of new players starting their adventures in Eorzea.

So if you are looking to start the game, the hardest gate to crash through is downloading the damn thing, but I will put this link right here for you to help make your life easier.

Let us know if you end up giving this fun game a try! My favorite part about this game beyond the lore and gameplay is the community. The community of FFXIV is famous for being incredibly helpful to its new players, also known as “sprouts”. Gone are the days of being ashamed for being new to a dungeon and not knowing where to go. Just ask, and nine times out of ten, the other players will be glad to help you out! The game is riddled with Free Companies (guilds) that are all welcoming to new players and full of seasoned adventurers looking to help you start your journey. Another great feature is that there is content for every level of gamer. From casual to hardcore, there is plenty of content to keep you busy. If you want to try your hand at some of the hardest content in the game, there is plenty of it, but if that is not for you, do not sweat it. There is plenty of casual content, and NONE of the stories is locked behind hard content.

I am currently playing on the Primal Datacenter on the Lamia server. Feel free to look up Davola Steel in-game if you need any help or want to fight some monsters together!

Happy adventuring, and see you in Eorzea!

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Interviews Video Games

Indie Game Week (10/05/2021)

Indie games are awesome. Games made by a group of fifty people, or a dozen, or five, or a single person that wanted to bring a creative vision into reality with the resources they had. Art that, for several reasons, couldn’t be made by a multibillion-dollar company, at least today. That’s what this column is supposed to be: A celebration of all those projects made by people that, on their own, went and did whatever they wanted. We’re gonna be telling you in a monthly format about any games not made by an AAA company, to shed some light on those projects, gush about them, and maybe even to help you find a new favorite game!

Luke:

Tails of Iron – $24.99 on Microsoft Windows, Nintendo Switch, Xbox Series X and S, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5.

Tails of Iron is the video game adaptation of the old Redwall book series. Or at least, that’s what I assume because the main character is a mouse guy, and it’s a high fantasy world. I’ve never actually read Redwall. Tails of Iron does not have complex mechanics. Most quests feel like fetch quests, or “clear out this area” which really amounts to fetch quests. The combat doesn’t feel as fantastic as other “Check out our Soulslike combat!” games. All of these things are bad, but I gotta say, I love this game a lot.

The story is so dang good, with all of its little nuances (The characters talk in little chirps, and their intentions are depicted in pictures within the thought/word bubbles) that make this devilishly charming yet abhorrently violent that it’s easy to overlook the flaws. Heck, I’d even say these push the flaws out of flawed territory. I’m doing another fetch quest? That makes sense; the protagonist needs to be on the ground, getting in touch with the people! There’s a base-building mechanic that amounts to…more fetch quests, but hey, I’m gonna fetch real hard because I can’t wait to see the base get built up. The combat is a bit sluggish, but it works within itself, making sure to never jump the shark into “unfairly difficult” territory. It can serve as a nice change of pace from the usual “pixel perfect” combat you find in these sorts of games.

So if my assumption was correct and this is the video game adaptation of Redwall, then dang, I need to read Redwall because this game is just oozing with so much charm and fun that it’s got me not just overlooking the flaws but somehow praising them.

Developed by Odd Bug Studio.

Gabrielle:

Crossing Souls – $14.99 on Microsoft Windows, Nintendo Switch, macOS, PlayStation 4, Linux, PlayStation Vita.

Is Crossing Souls revolutionary? Something never seen before? Not really. More of a recollection of a lot of things seen before, actually. But is it fun? You bet it is. Released in early 2018, Crossing Souls tells the story of a group of friends from California involved in a mystery that would change their lives forever. From the aesthetic to the gameplay, it’s an homage to the 80s pop culture (Or the nostalgia for the 80s pop culture) if there ever was one.

First of all, the pixel art aesthetic is beautiful and truly successful at making you nostalgic for the idea of the 80s we all have in mind. Every map is filled with color, detail, and excellent references that just fill you with joy. The gameplay is a beat ‘em up with some platforming here and there, where you get to change between the five friend protagonists, each with their one special ability. They’re not always useful, and besides very specific scenes, you can get through the game using only one or two. But they’re all so endearing that I always found myself randomly changing between them just to see them.

While I said it’s not the most original game out there, it’s the type of media that, while heavily appealing to nostalgia, it’s not something necessary to the enjoyment. It creates a gripping story, entertaining gameplay, exciting exploration, lovely characters, and as a whole, is the damn definition of fun. It has some slight problems, like losing some of the stakes later in the game (Although still capable enough to make me cry at the end). But I would be lying if I said I didn’t think to myself, ‘’I should replay that’’ every time it pops in my mind.

Developed by Fourattic.

We also have guests today! They are two brothers working on an immersive sim aiming to mix the GTA, Deus Ex, and Metal Gear Solid franchises. Here’s our teaser interview for Without Judgement, developed by Wushin Software:

Gabrielle: How did the project begin?

WS: After coming up with a few game concepts and working on them for some time, we realized that we don’t actually enjoy playing/developing those games, so we decided to make one of our “dream games”. Something that we wanted to really play. Something big, with complex mechanics. Something that has so advanced RPG mechanics and A.I that AAA devs wouldn’t want to spend money to develop it. This gives us another reason to work on the game.

Gabrielle: How would you describe the game?

WS: Without Judgment should be thought of as a Miami Vice/Lethal Weapon buddy cop story with a somber tone set in the near future. The story features a lot of adult themes, such as dealing with PTSD and depression, but It won’t be as abstract and dystopian as the Blade Runner movies.

Gabrielle: What are your influences and how are they implemented in the game?

WS: We were inspired by many different movies and video games. The major inspirations for the gameplay were the Metal Gear Solid series, Bethesda RPG-s, PS2 GTA games, and the original Deus Ex. The game’s story is heavily inspired by 80s-90s cinema (everything from Miami Vice to the X-files). But our goal is to keep the game’s plot relatively grounded. We don’t want to make it too dystopic and art-house-like, and we like to give our own twist to every 80s-90s trope.

One interesting example is the Buddy cop dynamic. Almost every time in movies, the main characters are polar opposites to each other, but people in real life are not that idealistic. What if, in a movie, the cops were two broken, disillusioned men who got into a similar life situation for two different reasons.

Gabrielle: How is it for you to develop this project as two indie developers on your own?

WS: It’s not easy, but most worthwhile things are hard to do.

Gabrielle: What are the objectives for the game and what can we expect?

WS: The main objective is going to be solving a murder mystery case, but there will be a lot of side quests and dynamic random encounters that will take you through different sprawling megacities, deserts, and swamps. The map is huge, both in its scale and size. It’s sort of like GTA SA’s map. The game is very open, and there are a lot of characters and factions in the game that you can join/work for so you can really carve your own path, just like in Bethesda games.

The game is also very systematic, different corporations and gangs have rivals, and they often fight with each other in the game’s open world. Every interaction you make with them will have an effect on the gameplay and on the story. The core gameplay loop is heavily inspired by the MGS games. You can use a lot of different gadgets, tools, and skills to achieve your goals. We want to make the game really open-ended.

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Video Games

Let’s Enjoy The Silence – A Lake Review

Initial Thoughts and Expectations

Gabrielle: I’ve been waiting for this game for more than a year. If I remember correctly, I found it on Twitter while going through indie developers’ accounts to find games before it blew up in popularity. I really love games that tell you to relax for a while and take things slower, and my favorite thing about any game usually is exploration. Just running through a game’s map, discovering things, appreciating the landscape, it’s always fun and makes me feel immersed in the world I’m playing in. That’s what I expected: A simple, cute little game with nice art direction, a couple hours of fun, even if repetitive missions.

Dan: I honestly think you were the one to bring this game to my view. I sometimes feel like I have those things they put on horses to keep them focused in one direction, so I miss so much. I could not be happier that I took some time to sit down and actually play this game. It’s honestly an extremely pretty game that took me out of my usual high-speed, action-packed video games and told me to just take it slow. I never felt rushed to accomplish things or to speed up. Although I did drive like there were no laws. I enjoyed this adventure a lot.

A Quiet Town

Dan: Within the first few minutes, the game hit me with an emotional sledgehammer. Straight across my face at 300 MPH. A boss calls you. A simple thing, but the conversation is one I have had many times in my adult life, and every time it happened, a little piece of me died. The work I had done wasn’t enough. There is always more. Meredith is going through the same thing. Working too hard for people who don’t appreciate her. But she doesn’t let them hold her back from her time off… Gab, how did you feel about the story?

Gabrielle: It was a great surprise to see that it had one, for starters. I seriously thought it was going to be limited to ‘’You have this temporal job. Do it’’, because that’s not something unusual with this type of game (and that’s okay!). The cutscenes are not the best because we have to remember that we’re not talking about a AAA game here (Although there are definitely some that impressed me), but the story is so endearing. Same as you, I felt really touched by it. Meredith is a grown woman in her forties who slowly realizes that she might have not discovered her path in life at all, and what she’s currently doing takes a toll on her and doesn’t fulfill her at all. The thought of that happening is something that’s in my mind, and I’m guessing most people, all the time, so inevitably, I think the majority will be equally touched by the game.

What was exciting to find out were the branching paths!

Dan: We have a large enough wage gap where I can comfortably say we are both in very different chapters of our lives. I empathized with Meredith a lot because I feel that way a lot too. I am not OLD, but I am about to turn 30 in a year. A lot of my time is spent thinking about if where I am going is the right path for me. There are multiple paths in life, and that is a beautiful segway into talking about the game. The branching paths were not expected at all. Honestly, I had no idea what to expect going in. As I said, I don’t play a lot of indie games, so I was expecting a straightforward story with linear paths… not a fully realized town that I felt a lot for.

Gabrielle: Exactly! The cast of characters is so varied, and each one has their own quirks and things to deal with. It makes them exciting to know. I was genuinely happy when I talked to Lori and organized to watch a movie together or when I reunited with Kay, Meredith’s childhood friend.

Change of Pace

Gabrielle: The gameplay is quite simple. You drive your van, check on your map to see where you have to go (Or you could actually see the street signs), deliver the envelopes or parcels, and return to the mail station. You have some cute side-quests, like taking a cat to the veterinarian or taking pictures to start a photography club. I find it to be quite solid. It felt good to play, and these mundane tasks are exactly what puts you right in the very center of the town, so in my opinion, they work perfectly. The driving physics are great too; you only get to drive one vehicle, but it feels like you’re really driving, with the weight of a van and all. No crashing physics though! Which I’m fine with. It wouldn’t make sense with the rest of the gameplay and tone.

There’s one aspect of the game that adheres to the gameplay I want to know your opinion about. Most of the time, you’re inside the van, hitting the road, and there’s one thing with you: the soundtrack. You’re actually hearing the local radio who someone started out as a hobby. It has few songs, something which is even mentioned in-game, but I never really got tired of it or felt it was repetitive. It has enough songs that, each time I got back in the game, it actually felt like a companion during the travel. What was it like for you?

Dan: Honestly, sometimes I found myself missing stops because I really enjoyed listening to the music and just looking at the lake. I grew up on an island, so I have a connection to small towns and water. It just clicked so well for me. The music didn’t get too repetitive where it ever felt like a problem. It honestly felt like a real radio station because some songs would repeat. I honestly loved that cat mission so much because of the cats in the game responding to you with meows. That stuff makes me smile.

The driving was so smooth! As I mentioned before, I often got lost in just watching the scenery so much that I may or may not have crashed the van a few times. Thankful there was no crash mechanic because I would have cost the town an arm and a leg.

What Makes This Game Stand Out?

Gabrielle: I think it’s the sum of its parts that makes it stand out. Each of them is great on their own, but together, they make something really unique. You could easily compare this to something like Stardew Valley, for example, but the art style, characters, gameplay, and especially the fact that it actually has an ending make the game a totally different thing of its own.

Dan: So Stardew Valley has too much going on for me to relax. It actually makes me anxious to have to think about all the systems in it. This is very much what I want in a relaxing game. I had a lot more fun putting my phone down and just fully immersing myself in the game for this. I have a habit of checking my phone, but something about Lake made me forget all those responsibilities and made me realize they could wait. I had mail to deliver!

Should you pick this up?

Dan: I really do think this one is worth buying. It’s a very unique experience from a video game. It’s a must-buy for me. It deserves some time to really sink in and deliver some letters.

Gabrielle: Totally. Some people could find a problem with the playtime (It took me seven hours and a half to beat), but honestly, I don’t care how long any game is, but how effective they are at what they try to do and how much I enjoyed it, and Lake excels at what it set out to do, making it an experience that I can only recommend you to play for yourself. If anything we said sounds even a bit interesting, you should check it out.

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Books Comics Film Television Video Games

Star Wars: A Spotter’s Guide to the Legends EU

Star Wars!

A thing we all love and can totally agree on amicably!

While we anxiously await the day that there can be Star Peace, this sprawling franchise has encompassed numerous genres beyond the realms and narratives of space opera. The franchise’s genre-hopping has also spanned over multiple “time periods” throughout the storied history of the Jedi, Skywalkers, and Republic. Branching off into multiple timelines that wove themselves throughout and between the movies into books, video games, and short-form narratives.

The most famous of these timelines being the “Legends Expanded Universe”. The name given to the now-defunct chunk of history that started narratively post-Return of the Jedi which used to sustain us ravenous nerds once we had ruined our VHS tapes of the Special Editions, roving out in search of more love and lightsabers.

So in honor of the GateCrashers Star Wars Celebration (no, not that one), the wise and powerful Jedi Council of GC decided we should talk about our favorite Old EU works! The stories that were too big for movies. Too weird for TV shows. And too horny to be placed anywhere else in the main canon. 

So gather up that Calamari Flan and take a seat at the cantina as we bring you A Spotter’s Guide to the Legends EU!

Star Wars: X-Wing (Book Series)

So we are gonna start with one of the more obvious picks, but one that merits discussion all the same. Michael A. Stackpole’s intensely readable X-Wing series! For my money, one of the few aspects of the Legends EU canon that still holds the fuck up.

Set only two and a half years after the Battle of Endor and the destruction of the second Death Star, the X-Wing series finds Rebellion hero pilot turned New Republic General, Wedge Antillies, building a brand new Rogue Squadron; the legendary fighter wing that took down the first Death Star and provided the fledgling Rebellion with some of its first victories.

But while the logline of the series portends high adventure and blazing set pieces, the X-Wing series delivers much more than just thrills and heroics. While centered around Wedge as the “lead”, the rest of the cast, all ace pilots from across the franchise, all get plenty of time in the spotlight, growing together as a team and experiencing the epic highs and lows of a life on the edge. More than that, Stackpole takes these missions and their stakes deadly seriously, allowing this series to finally function as a raw and real war story, set against the immense backdrop of Star Wars in general.

That means we experience loss almost as much as Rogue Squadron does. We feel their pain and their triumph in a way that the movies never really had the time to focus on. We get smaller stories and scenes of heartbreak even as the larger war against the remains of the Empire marches on. That, I feel, is the real triumph of the X-Wing series. A Series that finally put the “War” into Star Wars.

Genndy Taratakovsky’s Clone Wars (Animated Specials)

This one might be another “no brainer” so bear with me. BUT C’MON! It’s the “original” Clone Wars cartoon! And the superior one, if we are being truly honest with ourselves and The Force. (Editor’s Note: This claim is disputed).

Originally presented as much-hyped short film specials on Cartoon Network/Toonami, these high octane, smartly contained short films gave fans left feeling tepid after The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones the action they so craved. Almost oppressively animated and smartly staged by the fevered mind that gave us Dexter’s Laboratory and Korgoth of Barbaria the shorts became appointment viewing during their original run and garnered all manner of critical praise for their rough and tumble action movie approach to Star Wars.

Sure, the final movie they heralded turned out to be kind of a snooze (though I’ll admit Revenge of the Sith is my favorite Prequel DO NOT @ ME). But the anime-inspired shorts still hold the hell up. Beyond just the sheer kinetic fun of the series throughout, you can tell the production staff had a real blast filtering Star Wars through all sorts of action/samurai movie riffs. Not to mention it serves as the stage to introduce many fan-favorite characters to the animated world, such as Asajj Ventress, the dreaded Durge, Kit Fisto, and literally dozens more. They even have been given somewhat of a renaissance here lately thanks to Disney+’s latest addition of the series to their “Star Wars Vintage ” collection.

Though pretty much all of the series’ stories have been wiped away by the new Clone Wars cartoons, I am still happy to live in a universe where I can queue up a whole bloody cartoon of seeing some of my favorite Jedi and Clone Troopers fighting breathlessly through the galaxy, not a single episode of a droid being kidnapped in sight.

The Star Wars: Jedi Knight Series (Video Games)

Probably the entries on this list I feel the most connected to, LucasArts’ Jedi Knight games deliver pretty much exactly what is said on the tin. And therein lies the real fun!

Set roughly between the years directly after Return of the Jedi into the opening years of Luke’s New Jedi Order (more on THEM in a bit), players usually find themselves playing as Kyle Katarn. The Legends canon’s acerbic mixture of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo. A character that I lovingly refer to as a “Trash Jedi”, as he starts as a cocksure padawan, washes out, takes up bounty hunting, and then finally comes back around to being a Jedi, all over the course of the first two games, both thrilling examples of the kind of cinematic shooter early 90s PC games were capable of.

Katarn is a character that recurs a few times throughout the Legends canon and once stood as the closest the series ever got to a Grey Jedi. He is also going to recur a few times in THIS list too, if only to keep me from mentioning Dash Rendar, who is just a straight-up carbon copy of Han with great shoulder pads. I have to give General Calrissian 5 wupiupi every time I mention Dash Rendar so I try to steer clear. 

But probably the best entry in the franchise, along with the most accessible, is Jedi Knight III: Jedi Academy, which finds players taking on the role of a full-fledged EU canon Jedi apprentice, under the tutelage of Kyle and Luke. Players get to visit a number of iconic worlds and choose the path of the New Order or the Cult of Ragnos, a new Sith sect rising to meet the light of Skywalker’s new temple. It is genuinely fun Star Wars nonsense and is stapled to a game that’s surprisingly addicting to play. The lightsaber mechanics feel genuinely devastating when employed correctly and the character development, tied obviously to your moral choices, feels rewarding in a way a lot of modern SW games have yet to crack again.

If you have a Steam account and some time to kill, spin them up! I promise you’ll at least be entertained by the dozens of Stormtroopers you’ll Force fling to their ragdolled, Unreal Engine-powered doom. 

The Bounty Hunter Wars (Book Series)

Long before another War of the Bounty Hunters graced the pages of Marvel Comics, author K.W. Jeter stirred up a whole ‘nother hive of scum and villainy in the Bounty Hunter Wars trilogy.

Set almost directly after Return of the Jedi, this trilogy’s biggest selling point was its promise to return Boba Fett to the saga. In the trilogy’s opening installment, The Mandalorian Armor, Jeter did just that. Just…probably not in the way we were expecting. From that kick-off, we are treated to a rollicking journey through Star Wars’ backwaters and scuzzier locales. One that feels and reads with a much harder edge than the lofty Jedi-focused stories and “blockbuster” efforts like the Thrawn Trilogy.

Better still, Jeter makes great use of the whole toybox of villains provided by Star Wars. Fett, obviously, takes the “marquee” spot but characters like Dengar, Bossk, Zuckuss, and 4-LOM all get rousing set pieces and featured positions throughout the three books, making great use of the book’s focus away from the “Big Three” of Luke, Han, and Leia. Cult-favorite character Prince Xizor, star of the N64’s launch hit Shadows of the Empire, also gets fun featured bits throughout, adding a bit of interconnected flair to the whole affair and adding the Black Sun’s rep to the already ripping yarn.

While relatively low-stakes in relation to the more well-known Legends canon installments, The Bounty Hunter Wars provided the prose with a scummy, pulp novel-esque fun the new books could stand to find a bit more of.

Star Wars: Galaxy of Fear (YA Book Series)

Did y’all know that Star Wars once did a Goosebumps? Did you also know that they fucking rule? Because both of these things are true, I promise.

Set in the weeks after A New Hope, the Galaxy of Fear series, all penned with a ghoulish glee by author John Whitman, follow Force-sensitive twins Tash and Zak Arranda who take up with their mysterious “Uncle” Hoole and his ditzy droid DV-9 after the destruction of their homeworld Alderaan. The pair then ping from one horrifying adventure to the next, trying to stay one step ahead of the Empire and meeting all manner of iconic Star Wars heroes along the way.

And when I say “horrifying” I absolutely mean it. These books are filled to the brim with nightmare fuel like flesh-eating Dark Force-powered zombies of long-dead Jedi and a whole race of aliens that are just brains in jars that walk on mechanized spider legs. THESE WERE FOR CHILDREN. 

While the clear R.L. Stein inspiration is an obvious draw, this series also stands up as a competently structured YA saga. All the books are accessible enough on their own, but they reward repeat readers with touchstones to the past books and are armed with a truly driving, morally poignant central narrative that carries it across the whole way. 

The cameos don’t hurt either. I won’t lie at the surface level glee at reading about Dr. Evazan being a part of basically the Imperial Thule Society or Dash Rendar (dank FARRIK, another 5 wupiupi for Lando…) ferrying children through a casino ship overtaken by a homicidal AI. But I think Galaxy of Fear offers a lot more than just basic thrills and chills, especially if you like your Star Wars to be a little more genre flavored. And A LOT more koo-koo bananas

Star Wars: Republic Commando (Video Game)

For my galactic credits, one of the best FPS shooters ever made and a personal (not-at-all-pushy) request for the list from Editor Ethan here at the GC Capital Ship. (Editor’s Note: Go read the book series that followed on from the game, they’ll make you cry).

Casting players in the role of “Boss”, the CO of an elite unit of Clone Troopers, LucasArts’ Republic Commando depicts the absolute thick of the Clone Wars’ fighting. Employing the diverse destructive talents of the rest of your squad, the game brings the pitched, gritty fighting of some of the better EU novels and translates it thrillingly onto consoles. 

Sure the campaign is thin compared to today’s standards and the multiplayer lobbies stand empty now (AGENTofASGARD on Xbox Live btw, in case you all wanna take some checkpoints later). But there is a reason it drew comparisons to Halo and the Spec-Ops franchise in reviews upon its release. Its combat mechanics are easy to learn, but challenging to master, and its storytelling, while driving and action-heavy, still makes the time for quiet moments amongst the player and the rest of the cast. All culminating in another stand-out first-person shooter effort amid the Legends EU video game timeline. 

Dark Horse Comics’ Star Wars Titles (Comics)

Long before the Galaxy Far, Far Away returned to the House of Ideas and once again bore the Marvel masthead, Dark Horse Comics controlled almost every era of Star Wars. And did a pretty bang-up job with it to boot.

Encompassing everything from the Old Republic to the New Jedi Order, the Dark Horse Comics era of Star Wars was an embarrassment of riches. Starting in the 1990s and even supported along the way by host of The George Lucas Talk Show, George Lucas, the Dark Horse line continually offered up a wide range of Star Wars experiences. Right up until the moment it legally couldn’t anymore.

For fans that wanted stories of the heyday of the Jedi, there were titles like Dawn of the Jedi, Republic, and even a Knights of the Old Republic ongoing series. For readers that wanted stories of the Age of Rebellion and iconic Star Wars heroes, there was a Star Wars ongoing, Rebellion, and even a wonderful X-Wing: Rogue Squadron title, serving as both an adaptation and continuation of the fan-favorite prose series. And even for fans that wanted to move BEYOND all that, they offered many adaptations of famous Legends EU novels, the now-iconic Dark Empire miniseries, and its rousing follow-ups Crimson Empire I-III.

We honestly didn’t know how good we had it. Though the current “Marvel Era” of Star Wars comics have popped in a way I didn’t expect (I would die for Doctor Aphra), I will always remember fondly the time when Dark Horse Comics’ efforts graced my pull-box with just top to bottom FUN (and well-produced) Star Wars comics.

The Jedi Academy Trilogy / I, Jedi / The New Jedi Order (Books)

My final entry is a bit of a cheat, but stick with me, I promise my reasoning is sound. 

One of the most enduring concepts from the Legends EU canon is the New Jedi Order. A brand new generation of Jedi Knights, led by Jedi Master Luke Skywalker, who intends on restoring the Jedi into something new and helpful to the fledgling New Republic. This kicks off properly in 1994’s Jedi Search by Kevin J. Anderson, a frequent and ironclad name on any discount Sci-Fi fiction table. 

This trilogy opener really swings for the fences. It’s weird and fussy and very, very focused on establishing the flavor of Luke’s new class of Jedi. But best of all, it feels like it’s also very intent on pushing forward Star Wars canon thus far. Shaped by the success of the Thrawn trilogy and some of the other standalone books, Anderson and company start to really knuckle down and grow the universe out, dragging a lot of icons along the way. And even introducing a few of his own with the debut of the Solo Twins, Jacen and Jaina

This expansion also starts to bleed well into the standalone books too! One of Anderson’s later efforts, I, Jedi, for example. In this single volumed tale that takes place concurrently with the new trilogy, we are introduced to Corran Horn. He’s a former member of Rogue Squadron and one of the galaxy’s first new Force-sensitives. In the chaos of the ending war, Horn’s wife is kidnapped and visions of her haunt his life. Turns out, those visions are Force powered and Horn resolves himself to speed through Jedi training with Luke in order to save her. Even if he has to turn to the Dark Side to do it.

Mixing the military action of the X-Wing series and the high weirdness of the Jedi Academy Trilogy, I, Jedi finds the Legends EU bearing expansion very well while also making great use of the myriad of genres one can explore through the lens of Star Wars. It’s exciting and raw and immensely re-readable, even after all these years.

This expansion comes to a head 25 years ABY (After the Battle of Yavin) in the proper debut of the New Jedi Order. 1999’s Vector Prime from the legendary R.A. Salvatore, the man who gave us Drizzit Do’Urden. Picking up with Jania, Mara Jade Skywalker, and other Legends EU staples, this series that sustained the Legends EU until the very day it stopped is just pure fun from start to finish.

The new generation of Jedi are thriving and the galaxy is in a healthy flux. But when a new and wholly unconventional threat called the Yuuzhan Vong make themselves known coupled with reports of rogue Jedi taking the law into their own hands on the Outer Rim, our new Jedi Council is forced into a deadly game they may not even know the rules to.

It all culminates in a thrilling, but meticulously staged collection of Star Wars stories. Ones that both honor the spirit of the original movies and push the franchise into different, challenging, and unexpected places.

Conclusion

Hear some of you grousing already, I can.

“What about the Black Fleet Crisis?!” “No love for Thrawn?!” “Y NO SPLINTER OF THE MIND’S EYE!?”

To which I reply, that’s the beauty of the Legends EU! It contained so much and employed all manner of genre riffs that any one of you could make a wholly different list and it wouldn’t necessarily be “wrong”!

The Legends Expanded Universe canon may have been pruned, TVA style, once the new movie trilogy was announced. But that doesn’t lessen its power much. Nor does it detract from the new line of novels and tie-ins produced in the wake of these new movies.

It’s all still there, in libraries and bookstores used and new all over the world, should anybody want it. I think that’s pretty crikkin’ neat. It doesn’t make it any “better” than the new books, comics, and video games. It just makes it always THERE for us. Either in their original prints or in the new reprints popping up on shelves, provided by the good folks at Del Ray.

Just like how A Galaxy Far, Far Away always is. No matter the incarnation. That matters. Then, now, and forever.

Godspeed, Rebels.

Categories
Video Games

No Man’s Sky (Review)

Ever since Mary Shelley wrote ‘‘Frankenstein; or, the modern Prometheus‘‘ in 1818, and redefined forever what would be the science fiction genre, especially in storytelling, there has been an insurmountable amount of work made around it. There have been books, comics, music, and movies that try to capture that style and narrative to tell a new story, maybe attempting (And maybe even succeeding) at trying to redefine it how Shelley once did, or use it to talk about modern issues. 

But what is science fiction? What makes a piece of art belong to that specific genre, and not fantasy, or surrealism, for example? As understood after Frankenstein, is a type of story set in an alternative reality to ours, to explore and answer a philosophical question that cannot be answered in our current reality. That’s why a book like ‘’1984’’ is still science fiction even after decades of its (at the time of it being written) futuristic setting has passed. And same as that of Shelley, a lot of works like Blade Runner choose to explore the theme of existentialism under different lenses and objectives. 

How did we originate, and how do we matter in an infinitely vast and ever-expanding universe in which we are no more than invisible dots? In movies or graphic novels, you can even see how the unimaginable size of the universe is purposefully the center of attention in a lot of panels to emphasize that exact theme. Since we are commonly scared of the randomness of our existence, given the unknown possibilities that come with that, choosing to create something using existentialist themes usually comes with a depressing tone, and that’s what sets No Man’s Sky apart.

Source: No Man’s Sky

I’m not a day one player. In fact, I played for the first time in 2019, already three years after its launch, and after HelloGames had added various patches and updates. Even though the game gives almost total freedom to do anything you want, the start is almost the same for everyone. Every player starts at a random star, with nearly all of them being dangerous for some reason. You may start at a frozen, heat, or radioactive planet. I’ve heard of very few people that begin on a paradise planet. 

In my case, I appeared on a temperature planet, which means daily heat storms and generally a desert biome. So you wake up completely lost and disoriented, without knowing where you are, how did you get there, or even who you are. At this point, you are nobody; a newborn, if you want to put it that way. You want to find answers, and notice that the equipment of your exosuit, the spacesuit that keeps you alive in outer space and gives you tools for better survival, is broken. So you start searching for the necessary materials to repair it. You walk this barren planet that seems focused on getting rid of you, experiencing storms that kill you in a matter of minutes, while there’s not a single sign of life forms like you that can help you, or even fight against you, in order to at least make the place feel less isolated. But you also realize that you can do anything you want with what is presented; you can go to whatever you prefer on this planet, transform the land at your will, and the more you find, the more options you have. It’s a similar feeling to that of playing Minecraft for the first time.

So you find the materials and repair the most important piece of technology for this; your analysis visor. When it’s turned on, you get a signal, coming from a starship. And then you go, fighting the deathly weather by trying to go as fast as possible or maybe using caves as a refuge, whatever way you can. And when you reach the ship, you discover it needs fuel and the thrusters repaired. After you’re done with the heavy work, you can finally take off from this planet. The motors of the starship start running, and it jumps brusquely out of the ground, almost as a magnet liberating itself from the force of another magnetic body. And when you start flying, this gigantic planet, that seemed infinite when you were exploring it, becomes almost as small as you. 

And the next task is reaching a space station. Until that point, I thought I was gonna be alone all of the time. There were only going to be empty planets, some nicer and more visually pleasing than others, but empty planets after all, where I could only explore, discover animals and build things. But all that changed when I reached the station. I encountered myself at the front door of this massive, spherical, otherworldly satellite, and I was absorbed inside. As my spaceship was going through the interior of this unknown building, I was in awe. It wasn’t something I could build at all, it had to be the work of something far more organized and capable than a single, wandering being like myself; what was that entity in question, I don’t know. But even more striking, were the people that I saw. Aliens of all kinds of races going through what seemed like just a normal day; some worked there, some were just stopping by, like me. This is when I knew that the planet I woke up in, was nothing. I wasn’t alone, I was in an extremely alive and breathing universe with millions of things that were just waiting for me to find them. 

Source: No Man’s Sky

And I kept playing. As the months passed, I dropped out of the game to do other things or play other games, but I always came back. There was always something else to discover, especially with all the new updates that are constantly being added to the game. I’ve always looked for that game that people tend to have for themselves, that serves almost like a second world to live in. For some, that’s a game like World of Warcraft, for others something more relaxing like Stardew Valley; for me, it’s No Man’s Sky. 

At first, I settled on a nice planet that I found, built my base that I planned to keep expanding until it was the most imposing, technologically advanced mansion, with every possible gadget that I could make. But I had a really evident money problem. There are three types of money in the game; units, nanites, and quicksilver. All of them are accessible without paying anything in real life, but I had near to nothing of all three. And that’s really important, if you lack a mineral to create something, you could just buy it at a space station. Or maybe you are offered a freighter that costs ten million units, and you have barely six thousand. I wasn’t very aware of the best way to get money. I saw that some people built their own industries that mined minerals to then sell them, and I considered doing that, but it just didn’t feel right for me. 

That’s when I started doing the Nexus missions. The Nexus is basically a lobby where you can trade, meet other players, claim rewards and take on missions. The mission objectives can go from rescuing a stranded life-form, or fighting space pirates in your ship, to destroying sentinel bases. I started earning a fair amount of money with them, and while I was exploring, I realized that I didn’t want to settle on a planet. I was going to travel through the universe, living inside my freighter, a mothership given to me by an ex-captain after saving them from pirates, because they weren’t prepared for the responsibilities. Not only that, but I was going to save the money I’m getting as a bounty hunter to upgrade both my freighter and starship to become a space pirate myself, living my life by robbing other freighters. 

And while I’m doing that, I’m still finding out things. I recently broke an egg that I thought would just give me minerals, and a mix of a pseudo-xenomorph and a scorpion came out of it and attacked me. I also discovered a giant, one-eyed worm at the bottom of the sea that almost ate me. And probably the most random encounter I had, was a metallic substance in an ancient underwater building that talked to me about some sort of prophecy. And there are still things that I know about that I never encountered, like giant-sand worms (I tend to avoid deserted planets), flying pets, and abandoned, almost haunted freighters in the middle of space. All of it serves as proof of how No Man’s Sky treats existentialism. Some people decide to view it as a hopeless concept; we are not important, we are just dust in space and nothing we’ll do will ever matter. But No Man’s Sky wants you to embrace the fact that you are an invisible dot in an ever-growing universe, so that you can do everything you want with it, and have as much fun as you want because, in the end, that’s all that matters.

Categories
Video Games

Dragon Age’s Recovering Templar

NPC’s, or non-playable characters, are typically the filler of the RPG sausage. You need them to build out the world and provide stakes to the narrative, but more often than not they won’t bring much outside of side-quests to the table. Cullen Rutherford is not a traditional NPC. I had at one point written off this Templar until I noticed he kept showing up in Dragon Age games, each time being a little more relevant to the plot and underscoring the plights of the Templar Order, most notably substance abuse. 

Dragon Age is a fantasy RPG centred on the continent of Thedas’s hostile politics, a recurrent demonic plague known as “The Blight,” and — most notably — the conflict between the mages and their keepers, the Templar Order. 

When we are first introduced to Cullen, he’s a Templar witness to the Harrowing your protagonist survives in Dragon Age: Origins‘s magi origin. His job was to strike you down if you came out of that “test” as an abomination. When you later visit the Circle of Magi’s tower, Cullen can be found trapped by some blood mages and politely asks you to kill all the mages within — in case any were secretly blood mages. I didn’t expect him to show up again in any future capacity.

Cullen in captivity – Dragon Age: Origins

Cullen was next sent to the Circle of Magi in Kirkwall, the setting of Dragon Age II, wherein he was promoted to second-in-command to Knight-Commander Meredith. Unlike his portrayal in the first game, Cullen is idealistic about the Templar Order’s ability to win the hearts and minds of the city and quell rising tensions between the discontent mages and the Chantry. As the years pass, he comes to believe that Meredith is leading his order down the wrong path. The red lyrium in her sword has shaped her into a homicidal authoritarian. When she dissolves the Circle of Magi in Kirkwall (effectively sentencing all mages to death) it is Cullen who orders her to step down. 

The last person I expected to see commanding the Inquisitor’s forces in Dragon Age: Inquisition was Cullen. The Templars were in active conflict with the mages and he did not seem like the type to walk the middle road. It’s clear, however, the events in Kirkwall changed the way he saw both the order and its treatment of the mages. His degree of inner turmoil isn’t fully apparent until he admits to you that he’s been weaning himself off an addiction to lyrium. In fact, Cullen made an agreement with your squad-mate Cassandra to be removed from duty should he become a liability. As the Inquisitor, you have the option to either encourage him to fight this addiction or go back on lyrium. 

Cullen’s Lyrium Kit – Dragon Age: Inquisition

So, there’s a lot to unpack here. Who are the Templars and why are they abusing harmful substances? Why would substance use be a part of the Templar Order’s culture? Why is it that the Inquisitor has any say over Cullen’s path to recovery? 

The Templars are the military arm of the Chantry, the most prominent religious order in Thedas. They are charged with hunting apostate and rogue mages, defeating demons, and watching over the mages researching magic within the Circle of Magi. The Templars posture as holy knights, yet their Order has insidious practices towards both mages and its own members which all come back to the use of lyrium. 

While mages use lyrium to enhance spells and rituals, Templars ingest this mineral to enhance their ability to resist and dispel magic. It also gives them more boldness and power in combat. Not dissimilar in some ways to the performance enhancing chemicals used on soldiers in Vietnam. In many ways, it’s horrific that substance use like this be so ingrained in Templar life, but this is not a side-effect of their calling — it is a feature.  

It becomes clear throughout the Dragon Age games that the Chantry has dominance over the entire lyrium trade, despite dwarves being the only group capable of safely mining and refining the substance. The Chantry uses their lyrium for a test called the Harrowing for all Circle of Magi members, to disable mages by removing their magical connection to the Fade using a lyrium branding technique known internally as the Rite of Tranquility, and — finally — to maintain Templar addiction to the substance for long term obedience. 

Cullen’s Lyrium capsule – Dragon Age: Inquisition

On the surface it makes a twisted kind of sense — use the substance directly connected to all magic in Thedas to police its usage. Templars, with their lyrium enhanced abilities, can fight back against rogue mages, apostates, and abominations by becoming inhuman themselves. If you dig a little deeper though the Chantry’s logic falls apart. 

A mage can survive a Harrowing and later become a blood mage or abomination. That first test is like getting your driver’s license — a successful exam doesn’t eliminate the possibility of an eventual car crash. Secondly, forcefully turning mages into Tranquil through lyrium castration may relieve the risk of their demonic possession but it also removes all humanity and has been repeatedly abused by the Chantry for political purposes. The greatest lyrium abuse, however, lies with the rank and file Templars. 

Prolonged use of lyrium by Templars becomes addictive, the cravings unbearable. Over time they will grow disoriented, incapable of distinguishing a memory from the present. They’ll often become paranoid, haunted by their worst memories and nightmares during all hours. So, why not just quit it entirely? Well, withdrawal symptoms include physical weakness, headaches, forgetfulness, an unquenchable thirst, and cold hands. A Templar named Samson talks up the merits of lyrium in Dragon Age II before admitting, “if you stop it just about kills you.” Yet this doesn’t dissuade Cullen from attempting sobriety. 

Cullen & Tranquil Mage branded by the Right of Tranquility – Dragon Age: Inquisition

I have complicated feelings around how Dragon Age handles lyrium addiction. Being only a few months sober myself, I can understand the shame Cullen feels in relapsing on lyrium. It struck a chord with me. So, naturally, I pushed him away from lyrium use. The problem, outside of the withdrawal effects, is that his outcome as an addict or teetotaler depends wholly on your choices as the Inquisitor. Specifically, whether you’ve pushed him to use lyrium or abstain, whether you’ve disbanded the Inquisition, and whether the two of you have been romantically involved. 

The potential scenarios that play out are (1) Cullen settles down with you in Ferelden to find some undefined happiness with no clear indication of how he overcame addiction, (2) Cullen opens a rehabilitation centre for former Templars and people suffering from lyrium madness, and (3) Cullen is found years later as a crazed street beggar who has fully succumbed to lyrium madness and needs to be put down like a rabid dog. 

Cullen’s lyrium addict outcome – Dragon Age: Inquisition – Trespasser DLC

Lyrium isn’t methamphetamine. It doesn’t function at all like opioids, depressants, or hallucinogens. If anything, the use of lyrium by Templars would be more analogous to the stimulants I take to manage the physical and mental symptoms of ADHD. I’m not even sure if my advising him to go off lyrium entirely was the right choice given the immediate effects on his coordination and awareness along with the long-term effects. Sadly, any other choice the Inquisitor makes is a fast-track to Cullen becoming a drug-addled beggar. Why is the choice so black-and-white? And why is me being his romantic partner the difference between him farming in the countryside or opening up the Betty Ford Clinic for wayward Templars? 

Ideally, the conversations you have with Cullen would have amounted to him making his own choice about substance usage and recovery. Or perhaps, maybe the triggering of a questline that produces some solutions around lyrium addiction and recovery. Instead, the Templar Order marches onward as does lyrium addiction. Cullen was just a glance at how challenging the world of Thedas is for those who sacrifice their physical wellbeing for shiny armor and a stat boost against magic. It’s a sad conclusion to a character who deserved to determine his own fate. 

I recognize that Cullen is an NPC and you are the protagonist. Your agency in the world of Dragon Age is obvious. Still, the level of influence you have over another character’s recovery in this case is a real disappointment. My hope is that the upcoming Dragon Age sequel can find a solution to rehabilitate former Templars without removing their agency or waving away how immensely challenging the road to recovery can be.